The Redemption of Althalus (8 page)

BOOK: The Redemption of Althalus
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Ghend’s directions hadn’t really been too precise, but Althalus knew that his first chore was going to be finding the edge of the world. The problem with that was that he wasn’t entirely sure what the edge of the world was going to look like. It might be a sort of vague, misty area where an unwary traveler could just walk off and fall forever through the realm of stars that wouldn’t even notice him as he hurtled past. The word “edge,” however, suggested a brink of some kind—possibly a line with ground on one side and stars on the other. It was even possible that it might just be a solid wall of stars, or even a stairway of stars stretching all the way up to the throne of whatever God held sway here in Kagwher.

Althalus didn’t really have a very well-defined system of belief. He knew that he was fortune’s child, and even though he and fortune were currently a bit on the outs, he hoped that he’d be able to cuddle up to her again before too long. The ruler of the universe was a little distant, and Althalus had long since decided to let God—whatever his name was—concentrate on managing the sunrises and sunsets, the turning of the seasons, and the phases of the moon without the distraction of suggestions. All in all, Althalus and God got along fairly well, since they didn’t bother each other.

Ghend had said that the edge of the world lay to the north, so when Althalus reached Kagwher, he bore off to the left rather than climbing higher into the mountains where most of the gold mines were located and where the Kagwhers were all belligerently protective.

He came across a few roughly clad and bearded men of Kagwher as he traveled north, but they didn’t want to discuss the edge of the world for some reason. Evidently this was one of the things they weren’t supposed to talk about. He’d encountered this oddity before, and it had always irritated him. Refusing to talk about something wouldn’t make it go away. If it was there, it was there, and no amount of verbal acrobatics could make it go away.

He continued his journey northward, and the weather became more chill and the Kagwher villages farther and farther apart until finally they petered out altogether, and Althalus found himself more or less alone in the wilderness of the far north. Then one night as he sat in his rough camp huddled over the last embers of his cooking fire with his new cloak wrapped tightly around his shoulders, he saw something to the north that rather strongly told him that he was getting closer to his goal. Darkness was just beginning to settle over the mountains off to the east, but up toward the north where the night was in full bloom, the sky was on fire.

It was very much like a rainbow that had gotten out of hand. It was varicolored: not the traditional arch of an ordinary rainbow, but rather a shimmering, pulsating curtain of multicolored light, seething and shifting in the northern sky. Althalus wasn’t very superstitious, but watching the sky catch on fire isn’t the sort of thing a man can just shrug off.

He amended his plans at that point. Ghend had told him about the edge of the world, but he’d neglected to mention anything about the sky catching on fire. There was something up here that frightened Ghend, and Ghend had not seemed to be the sort of man who frightened easily. Althalus decided that he’d continue his search. There was gold involved, and even more importantly, the chance to wash off the streak of bad luck that had dogged his steps for more than a year now. That fire up in the sky, however, set off a very large bell inside his head. It was definitely time to start paying very close attention to what was going on around him. If too many more unusual things happened up here, he’d go find something else to do—maybe over in Ansu, or south on the plains of Plakand.

Just before sunrise the next morning he was awakened by a human voice, and he rolled out from under his cloak, reaching for his spear. He heard only one voice, but whoever was talking seemed to be holding a conversation of some kind, asking questions and seeming to listen to replies.

The conversationalist was a crooked and bent old man, and he was shambling along with the aid of a staff. His hair and beard were a dirty white, he was filthy, and he was garbed in scraps of rotting, fur-covered animal skins held together with cords of sinew or twisted gut. His weathered face was deeply lined, and his rheumy eyes were wild. He gesticulated as he talked, casting frequent, apprehensive glances up at the now-colorless sky.

Althalus relaxed. This man posed no threat, and his condition wasn’t all that uncommon. Althalus knew that people were supposed to live for just so long, but if someone accidentally missed his appointed time to die, his mind turned peculiar. The condition was most common in very old people, but the same thing could happen to much younger men if they carelessly happened to miss their appointment. Some claimed that these crazy people had been influenced by demons, but that was really far too complicated. Althalus much preferred his own theory. Crazy people were just ordinary folk who’d lived too long. Roaming around after they were supposed to be lying peacefully in their graves would be enough to make anybody crazy. That’s why they started talking to people—or other things—that weren’t really there, and why they began to see things that nobody else could see. They were no particular danger to anyone, so Althalus normally left them alone. Those who were incapable of minding their own business always got excited about crazy people, but Althalus had long since decided that most of the world’s people were crazy anyway, so he treated everybody more or less the same.

“Ho, there,” he called to the crazy old man. “I mean you no harm, so don’t get excited.”

“Who’s that?” the old man demanded, seizing his staff in both hands and brandishing it.

“I’m just a traveler, and I seem to have lost my way.”

The old man lowered his staff. “Don’t see many travelers around here. They don’t seem to like our sky.”

“I noticed the sky myself just last night. Why does it do that?”

“It’s the edge of things,” the old man explained. “That curtain of fire up in the sky is where everything stops. This side’s all finished—filled up with mountains and trees and birds and bugs and people and beasts. The curtain is the place where nothing begins.”

“Nothing?”

“That’s all there is out there, traveler—nothing. God hasn’t gotten around to doing anything about it yet. There isn’t anything at all out beyond that curtain of fire.”

“I haven’t lost my way then after all. That’s what I’m looking for—the edge of the world.”

“What for?”

“I want to see it. I’ve heard about it, and now I want to see it for myself.”

“There’s nothing to see.”

“Have you ever seen it?”

“Lots of times. This is where I live, and the edge of the world’s as far as I can go when I travel north.”

“How do I get there?”

The old man stabbed his stick toward the north. “Go that way for about a half a day.”

“Is it easy to recognize?”

“You can’t hardly miss it—at least you’d better not.” The crazy man cackled. “It’s a place where you want to be real careful, ’cause if you make one wrong step when you come to that edge, your journey’s going to last for a lot longer than just a half a day. If you’re really all that eager to see it, go across this meadow and through the pass between those two hills up at the other end of the grass. When you get to the top of the pass you’ll see a big dead tree. The tree stands right at the edge of the world, so that’s as far as you’ll be able to go—unless you know a way to sprout wings.”

“Well then, as long as I’m this close, I think I’ll go have a look.”

“That’s up to you, traveler. I’ve got better things to do than stand around looking at nothing.”

“Who were you talking to just now?”

“God. Me and God, we talk to each other all the time.”

“Really? Next time you talk to him, why don’t you give him my regards? Tell him I said hello.”

“I’ll do that—if I happen to think of it.” And then the shabby old fellow shambled on, continuing his conversation with the empty air around him.

Althalus went back to his camp, gathered up his belongings, and set out across the rocky meadow toward the two low, rounded hills the old man had indicated. The sun rose, climbing above the snowy peaks of Kagwher, and the night chill began to fade.

The hills were darkly forested, and there was a narrow pass between them where the ground had been trampled by the hooves of deer and bison. Althalus moved carefully, stopping to examine the game trail for any unusual footprints. This was a very peculiar place, and it was entirely possible that unusual creatures lived here. Unusual creatures sometimes had unusual eating habits, so it was time to start being very careful.

He moved on, stopping frequently to look around and listen, but the only sounds he heard were the songs of birds and the sluggish buzzing of a few insects just starting to come awake after the chill night.

When he reached the top of the pass, he stopped again for quite a long time to look to the north, not because there was anything to see in that direction, but because there wasn’t. The game trail went on down through a narrow patch of grass toward the dead snag the crazy old man had mentioned, and then it stopped. There wasn’t anything at all beyond that tree. There were no distant mountain peaks and no clouds. There was nothing but sky.

The dead snag was bone white, and its twisted limbs seemed to reach in mute supplication to the indifferent morning sky. There was something unnerving about that, and Althalus grew even more edgy. He walked very slowly across the intervening stretch of grass, stopping quite often to bring his eyes—and his spear—around to look toward his rear. He’d seen nothing threatening so far, but this was a very unusual place, and he didn’t want to take any chances.

When he reached the tree, he put his hand on it to brace himself and leaned out carefully to look down over the edge of what appeared to be a precipice of some kind.

There wasn’t anything down there but clouds.

Althalus had been in the mountains many times before, and he’d frequently been in places that were above the clouds, so looking down at the tops of them wasn’t really all that unusual. But these clouds stretched off to the north with absolutely no break or occasional jutting peak for as far as he could see. The world ended right here, and there was nothing past here but clouds.

He stepped back from the tree and looked around. There were rocks lying here and there, so he lifted one that was about the size of his head, carried it back to the tree, and heaved it as far as he could out over the edge. Then he cocked his head to listen.

He listened for a long time, but he didn’t hear anything. “Well,” he murmured, “this must be the place.”

He stayed some distance back from the Edge of the World and followed it off toward the northeast.

There were places where tumbling rock slides had rolled down from nearby mountainsides to spill over the edge, and Althalus idly wondered if those sudden avalanches might have startled the stars. That thought struck him as funny for some reason. The notion of stars whirring off in all directions like a frightened covey of quail was somehow vastly amusing. The cold indifference of the stars sometimes irritated him.

In the late afternoon he took his sling and picked up several round stones from a dry creek bed. There were hares and beaver-faced marmots about, and he decided that some fresh meat for supper might be an improvement over the tough strips of dried venison he carried in the pouch at his belt.

It didn’t take too long. Marmots are curious animals, and they have the habit of standing up on their hind legs beside their burrows to watch passing travelers. Althalus had a good eye, and he was very skilled with his sling.

He chose a small grove of stunted pines, built a fire, and roasted his marmot on a spit. After he’d eaten, he sat by his fire watching the pulsating, rainbow-colored light of God’s fire in the northern sky.

Then, purely on an impulse that came over him just after moonrise, he left his camp and went over to the Edge of the World.

The moon gently caressed the misty cloud tops far below, setting them all aglow. Althalus had seen this before, of course, but it was different here. The moon in her nightly passage drinks all color from the land and sea and sky, but she could not drink the color from God’s fire, and the seething waves of rainbow light in the northern sky also burnished the tops of the clouds below. It seemed that they almost played there among the cloud tops, with the moon’s pale light encouraging the amorous advances of the rainbow fire. All bemused by the flicker and play of colored light that seemed almost to surround and enclose him, Althalus lay in the soft grass with his chin in his hands to watch the courtship of the moon and the fire of God.

And then, far back among the jagged peaks of the land of the Kagwhers, he once again heard that solitary wailing that he’d heard before in Arum and again in the forest outside Nabjor’s camp. He swore, rose to his feet, and went back to his camp. Whatever was out there was obviously following him.

His sleep was troubled that night. The fire of God in the northern sky and the wailing back in the forest were somehow all mixed together, and that mixing seemed to have a significance that he couldn’t quite grasp, no matter how he struggled with it. It must have been along toward dawn when his dreams of fire and wailing were banished by yet another dream.

Her hair was the color of autumn, and her limbs were rounded with a perfection that made his heart ache. She was garbed in a short, archaic tunic, and her autumn hair was plaited elaborately. Her features were somehow alien in their perfect serenity. On his recent trip to the civilized lands of the south, he had viewed ancient statues, and his dream visitor’s face more closely resembled the faces of yore than the faces of the people of the mundane world. Her brow was broad and straight, and her nose continued the line of her forehead unbroken. Her lips were sensual, intricately curved, and as ripe as cherries. Her eyes were large and very green, and it seemed that she looked into his very soul with those eyes.

A faint smile touched those lips, and she held her hand out to him. “Come,” she said in a soft voice. “Come with me. I will care for you.”

BOOK: The Redemption of Althalus
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